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‘So many broken hearts’: Remembering Michoel Schnitzler, father of Hasidic pop

The Orthodox community is grieving an artist with a big voice and an even bigger heart

How did a community renowned for its piety produce — and come to love — a provocative superstar?

Michoel Schnitzler, who died of a heart attack at age 62 on Saturday, not only breathed new life into Hasidic music. Despite humble beginnings, he reached a level of popularity, especially among young people, never before seen in the ultra-orthodox world for anyone who isn’t a rabbi.

His aspirations were humble. But he unwittingly became the voice of a generation. His music, at times blisteringly edgy, energized a musical form once confined largely to staid event halls.

The father of Hasidic pop

Schnitzler’s popularity was about so much more than just his voice.

Growing up in 1990s Hasidic Williamsburg, kids would croak trying to imitate his booming voice — to us, he was the epitome of cool. He was uninhibited on stage, a little louder and a little more expressive than the typical Hasidic singer. Several of my childhood friends who later pursued careers in music were undoubtedly inspired by him.

There was a palpable sense of loss at Schnitzler’s funeral. Most of the Hasidic singers in attendance were younger than Schnitzler, and many are his direct disciples. This includes Lipa Schmeltzer, who once jokingly introduced himself to then-President Obama as the Hasidic Lady Gaga, alluding to his edgy style. Schmeltzer delivered a moving eulogy, which credited Schnitzler with his own rise to fame.

“You are leaving behind so many broken hearts, so many drop-out boys — including myself — who looked up to you, so many Instagram followers,” Lipa sobbed, in a line that may have seemed very strange at a Haredi funeral. But this encapsulates how people like Schnitzler and Schmeltzer are moving the needle toward greater acceptance and inclusivity within the Haredi world.

By the time he died, Michoel Schnitzler was a household name in Hasidic homes from New York to Jerusalem. However, his rise was anything but predictable: He was born into a rabbinic family and lost his father at a young age. He was divorced at a time when it was still taboo, and lived in poverty for most of his formative years.

 

The Jewish music scene in the 1990s was dominated by musical legends such as Mordechai Ben David and Avraham Fried, who were polished and seasoned musicians. Though not from the Hasidic mainstream, their music wasn’t written to ruffle any feathers.

When Schnitzler appeared on the scene, he took classic tunes and turned them into hits by lending them his touch and adding his own signature twists. As a singer at weddings and community celebrations, he directly interacted with the crowd, exhibiting a personality bigger than his voice. As he moved on the stage, he raised his voice and made people dance, infusing the music with ecstasy and excitement.

An agent of change 

Until Schnitzler’s rise, the American phenomenon of celebrity was virtually nonexistent within the Haredi community. Idolizing a figure for anything other than piety and Torah knowledge was a foreign concept.

And likewise, the idea of pushing back against social norms within the community through music was virtually unheard of.

Schnitzler’s popularity brought some backlash. His style was shunned by some Hasidic rabbis, which forced him to move out of Kiryas Joel, the ultra-Orthodox Satmar enclave in upstate New York where he was born and raised. But ultimately, his popularity was unstoppable — and so was his acceptance into the Haredi mainstream.

Schnitzler’s voice —  literally and figuratively — resonated deeply with a growing audience of young Haredi Jews. When he started releasing albums, he used his music to advocate for more inclusivity and kindness within the Haredi world.

Some of his songs could even be classified as protest songs. In the most famous among them, “Der Bochur’s Tzava’a,” (The Boy’s Will), commonly referred to as “track 5,” he addresses the problem of judging others by external measures. The lyrics don’t hold back against rabbis and educators who are quick to judge others based on external appearances of non-conformity:

 

“They are rotten on the inside and will burn in hell

But they are busy with other people’s sins. 

My friend’s son is not wearing a hat and suit, oy how ugly

An entire book on how bad those fancy shoes are … 

 

It’s not about how he is dressed or the shoes he’s wearing

He is a part of the divine and the son of the king of kings

As long as you are doing fine, don’t spill another’s blood

How much (blood) can we suck, it’s time to wake up.”

 

 

I doubt that Schnitzler saw himself as a rebel. But his songs reflected his own personal self-expression, and with his modern clothes and his divorce, he wasn’t a typical Hasidic Jew. But he found a community with those on the fringes of Haredi society.

From the margins to the mainstream 

Schnitzler’s songs carried forward the spirit of peace and love of the 1960s into the Hasidic world of the 1990s and early 2000s. By challenging power structures and hierarchies in his own subtle way, he elevated the voices of those marginalized within the Haredi community.

He likewise made it possible for those who came after him to write songs of personal expression and social commentary within the confines of community values and norms. This has undoubtedly moved the community toward greater acceptance of members who strayed from the Haredi mainstream.

His impact was immense, not just on the community as a whole, but on thousands of individuals. This was evident from the outpouring of grief and affection on WhatsApp: Nearly everyone I know posted a selfie with the deceased entertainer, and they weren’t typical celebrity-fan poses. In all of them, Schnitzler was glowing with his genuine smile, embracing each person as if he had just reunited with a long-lost friend, and many fans also wrote of feeling a personal loss.

It was striking how little these posts reflected on his music, and how much they centered on their own personal perspectives and anecdotes of friendship. 

One friend put it succinctly: “It’s not about all of you having selfies with Michoel; it’s about Michoel having selfies with all of you.” He genuinely connected with people. People saw in him their champion.

Michoel’s impact on the Hasidic community goes beyond music and entertainment; he embodied strength in the face of adversity and generosity of spirit. He leaves behind a legacy of his own music, and the music of the countless Hasidic artists whose lives and work were impacted by him.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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